In this blog: Ellie explains what ‘programming’ means in board gaming. 

There are all sorts of terms used within board gaming to describe the mechanics of a game. Familiarity with the jargon helps us to define the types of games we enjoy and find new ones to add to our collections. 

Each month I’ll share a blog in which I explain one board-gaming term. This month we’ll look at Programming.

In programming games, players lock in movements or actions before executing them. This could be a phase within a round or the entire game could be built around this concept.

How is movement programmed within a board game?

Programming games generally use custom cards each displaying an action. Players select cards and place them face down in a chosen order to ‘lock’ them in. Usually, once cards have been locked in, they can’t be changed. Some games may allow programmes to be amended in a later phase – possibly having the ability to add to the programme, remove a card or replace a card. 

Cards work well for programmed movement because they are easy to hide from other players and to place in sequence, still hidden. So you can easily have a multi-stage programme, each stage represented on a different card, all placed face down in order on a board or on the table.

What type of actions could be programmed?

Movement is usually a key action in most programming games. There could be cards for forwards and backwards movement, with other cards allowing you to rotate. Or alternatively there may be cards displaying compass directions – north, south, east and west. Some games may also include ‘rest’ actions, where a player does nothing at that stage of the programme.

Other types of actions can be programmed in too. Attack actions are common in programming games. Cards could display different weapons with different hit power, range and special effects. 

In fact, any action that you take within a game could be built into a programming game: picking up and delivering items, moving other communal pieces, taking money from a pot, trading or swapping resources, placing tiles… the options are endless.

What is an example of a programming game?

In Colt Express, which is a fabulous family programming game, players take on the characters of bandits robbing a train. The train itself takes centre stage on the table – a brilliant feat of cardboard engineering. There’s an engine with a number of carriages linked up to it. Each section of the train has two levels – inside the carriage and on the roof. The characters can move down the train in between carriages, move up and down from carriage to roof and run along the roof. These movement actions are shown on cards. The bandits are also able to pick up loot, shoot other people and move the marshall, who patrols the train. 

In each round of the game, a huge programme of actions is created, by all players before the actions are all executed. Players each have an identical deck of cards which they shuffle then draw six to create a hand. In turn, players play one of their cards onto a central pile – face up for all to see the action they’re programming. But at this point none of the characters on the train are being moved, the actions are being programmed not executed. Each round will consist of players placing several cards, so the programme created is increasingly long. 

As cards are being placed, you’re trying to work out in your mind where all the characters will be on the train and what will happen. You’re trying to remember actions you’ve previously programmed and react to what cards other players are placing. To confuse matters, the train frequently goes through tunnels, meaning that cards are placed face down in the programme – allowing players to add secret actions. So being able to predict or deduce what other players might wish to do, is also useful. 

When the programme is complete, the deck is flipped and the actions are executed, moving the characters around the train, collecting loot and shooting each other. When a character shoots another, a blank is fired and the player gives their opponent one of the six rounds from their separate gun deck. On the next round, the receiving party must shuffle this card into their action deck. It’s an enforced rest action – giving the player less choice and preventing them from collecting as much loot – which is the object of the game. So players need to avoid being shot where possible. 

Colt Express is featured in my Top 10 Spiel des Jahres winning games and my Top 10 family games for Christmas.


Programming in Doughnut Dash

One of The Dark Imp games uses programming – Doughnut Dash. In Doughnut Dash, players are the boss of a small time gang of doughnut thieves. Your two finest pilferers are stationed in a doughnut factory ready to steal doughnuts and you are giving them instructions via walkie talkie about which direction to move. Both of your doughnut thieves must move in the same direction each turn. 

In Doughnut Dash, each player has the same four cards – north, south, east and west. The directions are also marked on the board, so everyone knows which way is north. At the start of each turn, all players simultaneously and secretly choose one of the four direction cards, which they place face down on the table in front of them, and reveal at the same time. Then, in turn, players execute their action. If north is selected, for example, the player will move both of their thieves north on the board. They can move them in any order. They keep moving until they reach a non-empty square – a square containing a doughnut or another thief. When they arrive at their destination, they pick up the doughnut they land on or they steal a doughnut from the thief they meet. 

In the next round, players may not use the compass direction they have previously used. Their choices being restricted as they move through the game. Even though the programming aspect of the game is simple, the movement gets increasingly chaotic as the factory is cleared of doughnuts. If a thief leaves the board to the west, it comes back in at the east. If it leaves to the north, it arrives back at the south… and keeps travelling. There are portals that teleport a thief across the board and there are barriers that may have the thief bouncing off walls and moving the other way. So when you place a programming card, your considering:

  1. How the movement of both thieves will play out on the board
  2. Which thief to move first… as the actions of one could affect the other
  3. What other players before you in the turn order may do that could affect your movement
  4. If you’ll have a good option next turn considering your ending position this turn and your remaining cards.

You can get Doughnut Dash here

Other great programming games include: